By Mary Clarkin
School scenes: Students at Andover High School, above, gather for a socially-distanced assembly while cheerleaders at Maize South High “mask up” during a football game. High school journalism students from those schools, Derby and Maize High documented the first day of school with photographs and a video for the Wichita Journalism Project. To watch the video, visit facebook.com/wichitajournalism.
Teaching school was way more than just a job to Robin Stock.
“It’s kind of like who I am,” Stock, a Wichita public school teacher for 32 years, said.
But not anymore. Stock retired earlier than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Medication that Stock takes for arthritis compromises her immune system. Her doctor did not want her to be face to face with students during the new school year because of the risk of catching the virus, she said. The early August deadline for deciding whether to leave Wichita USD 259 employment without facing a $2,000-plus penalty came weeks before she would have learned if she could be guaranteed an online teaching option.
Stock said she grieved over her decision for a couple of weeks. She taught special education for fourth and fifth grades at Griffith Elementary School, a Title I school in southeast Wichita with a high number of students from low-income households. She knew not only the students but their families and the challenges they faced.
One child’s household lost two jobs during the pandemic. Another lacked adult supervision for kids at home. When Kansas classrooms abruptly closed in March due to the pandemic, Stock tried to reach all her students virtually, but “they were all in different stages of crisis, honestly,” she said.
Stock herself is a product of Wichita schools, graduating from South High School. After four years of college, she began her teaching career in Wichita USD 259. She taught many grades and then even taught other teachers. She was a team leader and a building leader. “Very involved,” she said.
Married and with two children — the youngest is a freshman at Kansas State University — Stock finds herself in an unusual place. This is the first fall in 50 years that she has not been in school.
“It wasn’t like I envisioned retirement,” said Stock, who had figured when it eventually happened it would be a joyous event.
During the summer, she gardened, read and grocery shopped for her mother. A summer motorcycle trip was canceled.
“I’ve been thinking and praying,” Stock said. “I’ve just been having a quiet time.”
“I’ve thought about doing tutoring, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do that safely yet. I think when COVID is over, I may substitute in special education rooms, but I can’t do that yet.”
Exit numbers not available
Statistics showing how many people left the ranks of teaching in Kansas and beyond due to the pandemic were not available as the school year started. They may never be known.
Susan Arensman, news and media relations manager for Wichita USD 259, wrote in an email that the district has not seen more retirements this year than expected.
Also, job openings for certified staff — including teachers, nurses, and others on teaching contracts — have been filled at a higher rate this year than in years past, Arensman said.
The overall shortage of teachers across the country persists. Some schools in Kansas opened the school year still seeking teachers or substitute teachers, coaches, paraeducators and other staff.
Arensman, when asked about substitute teachers, said COVID-19 “has certainly had an impact on guest staff hiring, but we have fared well in our efforts to recruit and secure people during this time. We are offering enhanced flexibility with Guest Staff Teachers, as we are allowing some, who do not feel comfortable, to sit the first semester out,” Arensman wrote. They intend to return for the spring semester, she said.
In September, after school districts have filed reports with the Kansas StDepartment of Education in that show job openings, the Kansas National Education Association will reach out to “see what happened,” said Terry Forsyth, director of political advocacy for KNEA.
“We’ll kind of dig down through the data that way,” Forsyth said, but it’s going to be “a little bit tough to dig that data out because when somebody leaves a school district, they don’t always have to give a reason.”
‘A lot of frustration’
Kip Nixon, another teacher who decided not to return to the Wichita school district for the 2020-2021 year, said the pandemic was the “catalyst” and “certainly pushed my decision along.” Nixon taught special education English at East High School, devoting more than 20 years to the teaching profession. Previously, he worked nearly 16 years in the Wichita parks department, taking care of trees.
At East, he taught freshmen, sophomores and seniors. Classroom learning ended during March.
“Trying to get kids engaged after spring break was very, very difficult,” Nixon said. Many kids chose not to participate or engage at all, he said.
Nixon experienced “a lot of frustration.” Only a handful of his students were interested in improving their grades, he said. Some would engage over their computers; some used their phones.
He anticipated — correctly — that the district’s high schools would continue to teach students online in the fall. He didn’t want to deal with that. “It was time for me to leave education,” he said.
The transition from working to retirement has been challenging.
“I’m a little bit stir-crazy right now,” Nixon said shortly before the Labor Day holiday weekend as he started to tag merchandise for a garage sale.
“I think I’m going to find something to keep busy. I don’t know what that’s going to be yet.”
Back to class
Lee Garrett, who teaches automotive technology at Andover High School, started his 29th year in teaching this year even though he is eligible for retirement.
“I enjoy what I do, and I feel as though it’s necessary what I do, and they don’t offer classes like mine in very many schools in Kansas. So I’m not anxious to see it be dismantled or done away with,” Garrett said.
Andover High School prepared for a hybrid delivery of education — partly in-person learning and partly online learning — for 2020-2021.
“The new strategies that we’re having to deal with can be overwhelming,” Garrett said. “The juggling of the new paradigm has been a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.”
“If I were more tech savvy, it probably would be less of a challenge, but I’m learning a lot of new technology features for education,” he said.
Garrett praised the district for acquiring a “very sophisticated” computer program for automotive tech students even before the virus arrived. It incorporates gaming technology and the simulation process, enabling online students to learn automotive science, theory and application, he said.
Garrett said he didn’t know of anybody who decided to resign because of COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of fear that is so unfounded in this,” Garrett said. His homework on the virus showed that there is “a lot of myth being put out there,” he said.
The coronavirus “has been so blown out of proportion,” and now “we have students who are fearful,” he said.
“We just kind of need to deal with the reality of this,” he said, and go about the task of teaching and learning and opening the economy again.
In general, education is a declining career path, Garrett said, as fewer choose to teach.
“It’s a conviction, or a calling,” he said.
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies, including The Active Age, working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans. Contact Mary Clarkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.